Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Public Life of Jesus - Lesson 2, Part 3


Preston Manning, Senior Fellow

This article is the fourth in a series by Preston Manning on leadership lessons from the public life of Jesus. A member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, founder of two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance—and the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000, Preston works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy.

The Temptation of Spiritual and Political Leadership (Part 3 of 3)

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.[1]


In previous articles,[2] we began to examine the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and the interpretation of that event by the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky as contained in The Brothers Karamazov.[3]

In a famous chapter entitled The Grand Inquisitor, the intellectual brother, Ivan, challenges the spirituality and Christian commitment of his younger brother Alyosha by telling him he is working on a poem set in Spain in which Jesus returns to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. In the poem, Ivan imagines that Jesus is immediately arrested and imprisoned by the Church authorities on charges of heresy—of adding to what he has said of old which in the opinion of the Church he has no right to do. One dark night, the Grand Inquisitor himself visits the Christ to interrogate and lecture him, arguing that Jesus’ greatest mistake was to ignore the advice of that “wise and dread Spirit, the spirit of self-destruction and non-existence”[4] (Satan) when he met with Jesus in the wilderness. If only Jesus had heeded that advice (“the temptation”) and based the direction and tenor of his leadership upon it, the work of the Church would have been so much more successful and mankind would have been so much happier and more fulfilled.

The first temptation offered by the wise and dread Spirit is for Jesus to win the allegiance of human beings by turning stones into bread—“Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!”[5] But Jesus rejects that diabolical advice by saying, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”[6]

The second temptation offered by Satan is for Jesus to win the allegiance of human beings by “giving them a show”—leaping off the pinnacle of the temple and being rescued at the last second by angels—using the spectacular, the marvellous, and the mysterious to secure public attention, awe, and support. Jesus rejects this temptation also.

The Third Temptation: Seize Political Power and Use It to Compel Allegiance to the Kingdom of God

Twice rebuffed by Jesus, the wise and dread Spirit still persists and comes yet a third time with his most powerful and persuasive temptation: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ ”[7]

On one level this temptation can be interpreted as the temptation to accept political power and influence whenever it is offered, no matter by whom, no matter on what terms—in this case, Jesus being offered such power at the very outset of his public life from the hand of the wise and dread Spirit on the condition that he bow down and give his allegiance to the offerer.

To Dostoyevsky this temptation is much more diabolical than that. It is the temptation to exercise spiritual leadership—to bring about obedience to God's laws and standards, to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth—not by grace, not by inviting men and women to freely choose to follow and serve Christ, but by seizing the authority and powers of the state and using them to compel obedience to the spiritual agenda.

What an awe-inspiring and irresistible temptation! The dread and wise Spirit of this world, whom Jesus himself three times referred to in his later ministry as the Prince of this World,[8] takes Jesus up to the top of a high mountain—the symbol in the Scriptures of political authority. Then in a flash, in a moment of time, he shows him the kingdoms of this world—all of them:

From the absolute power and authority of the Egyptian Pharaohs and the ancient Chinese Emperors, to the cumulative power and authority of the British Empire at its peak. From the power and authority of Prussia, and the Kaiser, to the Third Reich; from the Kremlin and the Soviet Empire, to the United States Senate and Congress, to the Asian superpowers of the 21st century.

From the power and authority of the Greek city states, to the vast empires of the valley of the Euphrates; from the court of Alexander the Great to the ancient kingdoms of the Mayas and Incas and Aztecs and the Khmer people of Angkor Wat; from the great colonial empires of Spain, and Portugal, and France, and England, to the great democracies of today.

From the power and authority of the theocratic kingdom of David and Solomon, to the popes of the Holy Roman Empire; from the power and authority of the princes of the Reformation to that of the princes and caliphs of Islam. From the military camps of Attila the Hun, to those of the Vikings and the Gauls, to the Roman Senate and the household of Caesar himself.

Having showed him all these kingdoms and governments of the world—from the dawn of time to the ends of the ages—he says, All this power and authority I will give you so that you can compel people everywhere to follow and obey your teachings. The one condition is that you bow down and worship the Spirit of this World, the spirit that says the holding and exercise of political power and authority are the keys to achieving the peace and universal happiness of mankind.

Jesus’ Response to the Third Temptation

So what was Jesus’ response to this temptation?  It was again clearly and emphatically to reject it, saying, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”[9]

Note that in this case, he names the source of his temptation—Satan, evil personified—and that, whereas Satan offers power and authority, Jesus commands service. Note further that it is this rejection by Jesus of worldly power that most infuriates the Grand Inquisitor.

Implications for Us: Should We Seek Political Power in Order to Compel Men’s Allegiance to Christ?

Does this temptation have a familiar ring? Of course it does. This temptation has been presented to, and has often been embraced by, Christian leadership in every century from Jesus' time right down to our own.

Have you not heard the following argument advanced by well-meaning Christian leaders and their supporters in the political arena?

"The atheists, agnostics, materialists, and secularists have got hold of the levers of political power and have used those levers to impose a non-Christian and even anti-Christian agenda on our nation. They have promoted and legalized abortion. They have curtailed prayer in the schools. They have made secular humanism the governing philosophy of the education system. They are promoting state approval of same-sex marriages and state-sanctioned euthanasia. They pursue social and taxation policies that weaken the traditional family. They have replaced the God of the Scriptures with the gods of the state and marketplace and the goddess of sexual promiscuity.

“So what should good Christian people who oppose these trends and want to reverse them do? They should—by political action—get their hands on the political levers and then use those same levers to impose a Christian agenda: to ban or at least regulate abortion; to restore prayer and the promotion of Christian values in the schools; to adopt social and taxation policies that support and strengthen the traditional family; to constrain rather than feed economic and sexual appetites; to restore traditional spiritual beliefs and practices based on the Christian Scriptures to their rightful place."

What a laudable and appealing proposition from the standpoint of the Christian community. Seize the levers of political power and authority in your society and use those to promote and establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. What a noble temptation!

It is of course a very old temptation—one as old as Christendom itself, one to which many Christians and Christian leaders have succumbed—and we should learn from their experience.

During the first three centuries after Christ, the Christian community was a minority in the Roman Empire—at first a tiny minority—bitterly persecuted by both the political and the religious establishments. But with the passage of time it grew in numbers and influence.

Then, in the words of the Grand Inquisitor as he recounted this history to the Christ:

“Just eight centuries ago, we took from him, the wise and mighty spirit in the wilderness, what Thou didst reject with scorn, the last gift he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth. We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth…. But Thou mightest have taken even then the sword of Caesar. Why didst Thou reject that last gift? Had Thou accepted that last offer of the mighty spirit, Thou wouldst have accomplished all that man seeks on earth—that is, someone to worship, someone to keep his conscience, and some means of uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious ant heap, because the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of men. … Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar’s purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands.” [10]

Yet Jesus, to the bitter disappointment of the Grand Inquisitor, rejected it all!

The Roman Empire declined and eventually disappeared, to be followed centuries later by the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806), a marriage of professedly Christian institutions and a Christian agenda with the political instruments of the evolving state, a marriage which begot the Crusades and eventually produced the Spanish Inquisition—an institution characterized by a fusion of the powers of the state with those of the professing Christian church so absolute that the powers of the state were used to burn at the stake those whom the church deemed to be heretics and a danger to the purity and the practice of the faith.

Western statesmen today profess to be alarmed at the fusion of religion and government preached and practised by Islamic fundamentalists, and well they should be. But in communicating our concerns, let us do so with the frank acknowledgement that for more than a thousand years Christendom attempted very much the same thing with results even more disastrous for religion than for politics.

In my own political experience, the biggest single public fear of electing strongly professing Christians to public office is the fear that we will use the persuasive and legislative powers of elected office to impose our Christian values and beliefs on those who do not share them. And the biggest single criticism from the Christian community of myself as a professedly Christian legislator in office was that I did not use the persuasive and legislative powers of my office to do precisely that.

The irony in all this is that if the general public actually knew what Jesus of Nazareth himself taught on this subject, if they knew of his own, personal, categorical rejection of that option when it was presented to him at the outset of his own ministry, they would see him and genuine Christianity as the great guardians against the very thing that they fear. The further irony—a tragic irony—is that when well-meaning Christians advocate the use of the coercive power of the state to bring in the kingdom of heaven they are actually taking not Jesus’ side but that of Satan when he advocated precisely that position in the wilderness temptation.

But what true believer, zealous for the cause of right and desirous of seeing the kingdom of heaven on earth, can resist the temptation to grasp the power and the authority of the state if it appears within reach?

Well, we know one who did resist—Jesus himself, the author and finisher of our faith. He called the one who offered him that power by his name: "Away from me, Satan!"[11] He then quoted the Scripture that says if a believer is going to bow down to authority or receive authority, there is only one authority to whom that believer should ultimately surrender himself or herself and only one purpose for that surrender. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only."[12]

Does this mean that Christian believers should not be involved in secular governments or the politics of the world, or seek to advance the values and truths that proceed from the word of God in the secular, humanistic, and materialistic political and cultural arenas of our times? Not at all! But let us recognize that the Jesus way of advancing those values and truths—of advancing the kingdom of God, of securing public support for a spiritual agenda—is fundamentally different from the way urged upon him by Satan in the wilderness. More on this “way” in a future article.

[1] Matthew 4:1

[2]Faith and Politics: Lessons in Leadership from the Public Life of Jesus, “The Temptation of Spiritual and Political Leadership Lesson 2, Parts 1 and 2."

[3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Signet Classics, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc., 1986).

[4] Ibid., 244-245

[5] Ibid., 246

[6] Matthew 4:4

[7] Matthew 4:8-9. Luke also quotes Satan as saying “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Luke 4:6-7

[8] John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11

[9] Matthew 4:10

[10] The Brothers Karamazov, 250-251

[11] Matt. 4:10

[12] Ibid.

Source: Marketplace Institute

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